I asked athletes what their biggest mental roadblocks are. This series of posts is in response to the answers I’ve received. Disclaimer: this is an athlete-to-athlete discussion of the mental side of swimming and in no way shape or form “mental health advice” ;).
Some of the responses I received described logistical issues that athletes found to be taxing to deal with, preventing them from slipping into the more pleasant, habitual groove of training consistently. When training is consistent, or in a “groove”, getting to practice and giving it a reasonable effort requires arguably less in the way of mental resources than when training schedules are erratic due to outside stressors and logistical challenges.
One swimmer wrote of his challenges, “Finding ANY kind of consistency in my life to train properly for anything. Just when I get into a groove, I get blindsided by some life event that pulls me out of the water indefinitely. I am constantly rebooting.”
Ugh. That sounds so frustrating! While there’s obviously nothing any of us can do about these uncontrollable life events, I’ve come to believe mental toughness is (in part) about adapting with resiliency to the unexpected. How quickly can you acknowledge that things have changed, get on board (and excited) for a new plan and as you’ve said, “reboot”? How can you continue to enjoy and get meaning from this sport, while at a time of your life when you are constantly rebooting?
Another swimmer wrote about having a full time job, a part time job and four kids, each with their own sports schedule that doesn’t even come out until the last minute. I don’t know how the parents of four kids manage the logistics of day to day survival, let alone their own personal projects and goals. My parents have four kids and I don’t know how they did it either, but they did a great job. Hats off to all you parents out there. You guys know far more about logistics management than I ever will and if I ever need help with this, I’m coming to you.
Other people I talked to and heard from referenced significant work and life stressors distracting them from swimming. Indeed, I can relate to this one. When my non-swimmer friends see me stressed, they suggest I go on a swim. But swimming when stressed is mentally hard for me. There have been times when I’ve struggled to make it to the other side of the pool because I am so absorbed in my thoughts on a life stressor. Once there, I remove my goggles and hang on the wall, looking around in order to ground myself. The only thing I can do at times like these is grab a kick board and just kick. Then, at least I can see the other people around me, the lifeguards, the pool itself. Swimming is solitary, even with others around. It leaves you with your own thoughts and when life throws some lemons at you, those thoughts are sour and can be painful to swim around in. Don’t worry folks, a post on dealing with isolation and swimming is on its way.
Finally, I’ll quote one swimmer, who summarized this all quite succinctly,
“…simply going for a swim is rarely straight forward. Mentally it’s like having to go round all the queue barriers at airport check in rather than just being able to walk up to the desk unhindered. If I could just rock up and swim I’d have more mental energy for my training and competition.”
As I write this, I sit in the Seattle Airport on a layover to Redmond from Pittsburgh, where I visited family over Christmas. I have a big workout planned tomorrow–a big one to make up for only swimming twice this week. A big one I might have to exert a lot of will-power to wake up for since I just found my flight is delayed an hour and I won’t be getting in until midnight. What sort of mindset will I be in when I swim tomorrow?
The notion of having more (or less) mental energy caught my attention in this swimmer’s response. There is something in psychological science called the will-power depletion theory. The theory is that will-power is a limited resource that can get depleted by tasks that use it. I refer to it as a theory because it is currently being debated by researchers, but I’ll tell you what I know and why it might be relevant to those encountering logistical issues and feeling their mental energy depleted as a result.
Chartiers Valley High School pool in Pittsburgh. Had a great workout despite spending vast quantities of will-power hauling myself out of bed at 4:30 am local/1:30 am pacific time.
Basically, over the past few decades, researchers have found that people will perform more poorly on tasks requiring will-power when they have recently been required to complete will-power demanding tasks. Applied to our situations, this theory would suggest that one would have less will-power to push ones self hard at practice if one recently used up their will-power suppressing emotion at work, with family, or overcoming a lot of hassle to get to practice instead of giving into the urge to skip it.
A few things seem to lessen this depletion effect in experiments, including the taste (but not necessarily consumption) of glucose, watching funny videos (to induce a positive mood state) and being intrinsically motivated to perform the task (in this case swimming). Some researchers speculate that rewarding experiences like laughter, the taste of sugar and intrinsic motivation may activate brain systems involved with will-power and self-regulation. In other words, the will-power is still there and isn’t depleted, but it needs to be activated by positive feelings or dopamine-inducing experiences. Researchers also found that the depletion effect depended on the extent to which participants believed that will-power could be depleted. When people thought it was a limited resource that could be used up, they were more likely to exhibit the depletion effect during the experiment than those who thought will-power could not be depleted. For those curious about this line of research, read the American Psychology Association’s summary here.
What does this mean for mentally coping with logistical challenges? I’m guessing the more positive or intrinsically rewarding you are able to make your experience with practice and competition, the more mental resources you will have, even if you had to go through a lot of hassle to get there. Another way to look at it is that if you can find ways and reasons to give yourself a lot of excitement and positive mental energy about practice, then you will be less affected by having to clear all those hurdles beforehand.
Activating Reward Pathways
To activate the reward pathways in your brain, try these ideas:
1. Before practice, listen to a favorite song that makes you feel positive and energized. Better yet, get one of those underwater MP3 gizmos and listen to it while swimming.
2. Remind yourself why you are swimming. Try to find reasons that are related to what positive impact this specific practice (or competition) will have on you and why you love it, rather than reasons related to your long term goals.
3. If you had a rough day (or even if you didn’t), do what I call “the mental warm-up”. It goes: 100 validate/100 gratitude/100 focus.
“100 validate” means you swim 100 meters while validating your own feelings by saying thing to yourself like, “yeah, that thing that happened today really sucked and of course you are still feeling sad/angry/worried”. Keep it simple–try not to go down the rabbit hole of the whole story of what happened and why it upsets you. Just acknowledge your feeling about whatever it is and be nice to yourself about it. After the 100, set it aside and move on to the next part.
The “100 gratitude” is think of at least three things you appreciate about being able to be there at practice. It could be seeing friends. It could be time for yourself away from other responsibilities. It could be just the feel of the water on your skin.
Then “100 focus” means you spend a little time thinking about some things you’d really enjoy getting out of the workout. This is no time for thinking what you “should be able” to do. Instead think about what sort of effort or approach you’d feel really happy about. It can be saying good job to other swimmers, or refusing to back off when it’s hard, or remembering to work on turns and streamlines. Try to stay away from a focus that makes you feel anxious, stressed or otherwise negative as that will likely increase the effects of will-power “depletion”.
I took this picture right before the 100x100s at Mt. Hood pool a few years ago, at a time in my life when I was just really thankful to be swimming again. That was one of the more enjoyable times doing that iconic holiday season set.
For Frequent Blindsides
For those who get blindsided frequently with unanticipated responsibilities and have to change practice or competition plans, it may help to reset expectations using an ABC hierarchical planning system. To do this, first figure out which days are more and less likely to get cancelled. Call practices that are unlikely to get canceled your “A” days and put the most important sets or distances on those days. For me, Saturday is unlikely to have any unexpected issues come up, so I plan a long, hard day then. “B” days are practices you plan to do and have a good chance of doing but sometimes get cancelled due to work or other responsibilities coming up. Do what you can to make it to B practices, but don’t beat yourself up if you miss some. Don’t make the “all-or-nothing” thinking mistake, where you think all is ruined because you missed some B days. See if you can make up some of the activities or yardage you missed by going a little longer on a different B day or doing a “C” day. Finally, a “C” practice is kind of a bonus or make-up day, like if you make it great, but if you miss it, it’s not really a big deal. Save extra yardage, or things you consider non-essential to your goals and enjoyment for these days. If you can get into a groove of not missing any “A” workouts, then you might be able to feel a sense of consistency even if you are missing some “Bs” and “Cs”. Those of us who grew up going to practice every single day and never missing may be more prone to all-or-nothing thinking about practice attendance, but it may not be realistic as an adult with multiple priorities and responsibilities, so we need to do what we can and be proud of that.
For Major Life Stressors
Finally, if you’re at a place in life where you are getting blindsided by really big life stressors like major illness, surgeries, grief, etc. then consider forgetting about goal setting for a moment and use swimming as therapy. Get to the pool when you can but use the whole workout to provide you with whatever you need that day. If you need to swim hard, swim hard. If you need to kick with fins or do dolphin dives or hand stands, do that. If you need to miss a day, just miss it. Swimming will be there for you when your world is falling apart and swimming will still be there tomorrow if you are busy putting your world back together again.
In summary, try to control what you can and be flexible with how you respond to logistical challenges so that when you swim, you swim from a place of enjoyment and appreciation rather than frustration and anxiety.